. . .
When 1990’s Days of Open Hand came out and failed to replicate the success of Solitude Standing — lead single “Men in a War” was pretty great, even if it mined the same depressing territory as “Luka” by discussing phantom limb syndrome — it seemed like Suzanne Vega was going to be firmly ensconced in “one-hit-wonder” territory.
Then something weird happened: two record producers who called themselves DNA took the acapella version of Solitude Standing opener “Tom’s Diner” and snipped it up and placed it over the beat from Soul II Soul’s “Keep on Moving” and created a whole new thing. “Tom’s Diner,” credited to “DNA Featuring Suzanne Vega” — sanctioned by everybody’s record companies, of course — was a massive smash all around the world, making it to #5 here and #2 in the U.K., and is probably the version of “Tom’s Diner” that you now remember.
I guess there was something about that acapella version of “Tom’s Diner” which attracted technicians: it was later used to develop and test early .mp3 compression schemes, which is something for a song that was originally written for acoustic instruments in 1982.
Now, whether or not the success of the DNA remix of “Tom’s Diner” emboldened Vega to take a musical left turn or not, 99.9F° was produced by Mitchell Froom — who also played keyboards — and featured an all-star cast of characters, like David Hildago from Los Lobos and Bruce Thomas from The Attractions. Thomas’s distinctive bass tones are over the horny title track, which also features chattering drums (or “drums”) from Jerry Marotta, Froom’s atmospheric keyboards and a weird honking guitar riff which pops in and out.
99.9 fahrenheit degrees
Stable now, with rising possibilities
It could be normal but it isn’t quite
Could make you want to stay awake at night
I love the contrast between the thirst in the lyrics and Vega’s ultra-cool vocals, especially the way she enunciates “ninety-nine point nine farenheit degrees,” a contrast that only gets more, er, contrasty on the chorus, with both Froom and Thomas adding cool flame.
You seem to me
Like a man
On the verge of burning
99.9 fahrenheit degrees
99.9F° the album wasn’t all electronic-adjacent experiments — “In Liverpool” was a slow torch song and “When Heroes Go Down” could have been on Elvis Costello’s Trust — but the bulk of the songs had a great combination of cool soundscapes and Vega’s easy melodicism, making it my favorite of her albums, and one that still sounds great 30 years later.
“99.9F°” Official Music Video
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